Profiting for Prescription: Medicinal Alcohol During Prohibition

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University.

James E. Pepper Whiskey Ad
James E. Pepper Whisky ad from the late nineteenth century. Source: James E. Pepper Distilling Company.

Whenever Prohibition reenters the zeitgeist through pop culture like the recent cable TV series Boardwalk Empire or through a historical anniversary, it seems inevitable that someone will produce an “isn’t this ridiculous” style article about the “bizarre” practice of prescribing medicinal alcohol. On the surface, the entire debate about prescription alcohol often seems illegitimate and merely a loophole that doctors and patients used to skirt enforcement of the Volstead Act.

As medical historians have pointed out, though, prescription alcohol is not merely arcane trivia.  It represented an early skirmish between an aggressive government and the collective efforts of the American Medical Association to assert its rights to distance medicine from politics.  

In reality, the status of medicinal alcohol resulted from negotiations between the state and organized medicine over the power to prescribe. Medicine already had enough prestige to weaponize laws against rival professions. Even critics of the AMA like pharmacist Henry Rowland Strong understood that it was seen “as a graceless and indelicate thing to criticize the medical profession,” and, he argued, the “political schemers in the high places of organized medicine” were always “quick to take advantage of this sentiment.” Strong feared that medicine would overtake pharmacy, and he warned:

No sooner is [the doctor] attacked for his greed for power and his unscrupulous methods of attaining it than he hastens to hide behind the skirts of the profession at large—the sentimental and picturesque ideal of the profession that the public cherishes in its heart—waxing eloquent about the sacredness of the calling, reciting its long list of honorable men and achievements, and setting forth its noble and disinterested aims.”

Critics feared that giving organized medicine the power to decide what medicines people could use would, in the words of Strong, “be tantamount to the establishment of a State system of medicine.”

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